Brain damage

In the first two chapters of An Anthropologist on Mars Oliver Sacks describes two cases of brain damage that are very different in etiology and in the effects on the victims’ attitudes and perceptions of the world. In “The Case of the Colorblind Painter,” the subject Mr. I. loses his ability to see color in a car accident; in “The Last Hippie” the subject develops an untreated brain tumor that blinds him and causes some amnesia. Both of these cases have drastic effects on the lives of they touch, destroying the worlds of these people as they had known them.

Both cases, then, deal with violence as James Gilligan describes in his aptly titled work, Violence. Gilligan separates violence into three types at the outset of his discussion: pathos, tragedy, and morality plays. Pathos encompasses “those natural disasters or ‘acts of Nature’—sometimes called ‘acts of God’—over which we have no human agency or control” (6). The paradigmatic case for Gilligan is the biblical book of Job, in which lots of bad things happen to a good man.

Harm, as it falls on Job, has no greater significance than the lesson that the world is often arbitrary, absurd, and irrational—which is a valuable lesson to learn, especially as it leads to humility, but does not say anything about dealing anthopogenic violence. Tragedy deals with humans as perpetrators of violence: “the tragedy of violence involves not just victims, but also victimizers. What we need to see—if we are to understand violence and prevent it—is that human agency or action is not only individual; it is also, unavoidably, familial, societal, and institutional” (7).

Both of these types of violence stand in contrast to morality plays which seem to correspond to an idealized form of axiological judgment underwriting the juridical system. In “the mode of discourse of the criminal legal process in the courtroom, only two questions about violence are admissible: how to distinguish the innocent from the guilty…and the guilty from the criminally insane” (6). The first question corresponds to that of the morality plays, which “reduce the question [of violence] to that of ‘innocence’ versus ‘guilt’” (8).

The second juridical question, of rationality, describes, at the level of non-human forces being embodied or personified through human actors, the irrational and inexplicable violence of pathos. Gilligan’s interest is not so much in railing against the injustice of it all (pathos) or locating agents of violence in a teleology of punishment (morality play), but intervening in the tragic drama, where the connections between people are the precondition for the violence between them—but these connections also allow for an alternative ending to the story, in which connections allows for the aversion or tragedy and violence.

The first story, the colorblind painted Mr. I. , contains elements of both tragedy and pathos. Mr. I. ’s brain damage stemmed from a car accident that appears to have been entirely the other driver’s fault: “On January 2nd of this year I was driving my car and was hit by a small truck on the passenger side of my vehicle” (Sacks 4). The driver of the other car does not seem to be much of a character in the story, and as to the reasons for his accident we can only speculate. Lacking any further information—that he was drunk, for example—the cause seems to be simple human error.

This would make, prima facie, make this an example of tragedy as it contains two human agents on either side of the violent act. Yet it also seems unfair to describe the driver of the truck as a “victimizer,” especially in the context that Gilligan uses it (to describe intentionally, deeply malicious persons like murderers or child abusers). Rather, this seems like a case of pathos being embodied in a human actor—the unfairness of the God of Job, for example, using one human as a pawn in his reign of absurdity.

The comparison to Job bears further interesting implications to be learned from the case of Mr. I.. What Job teaches, through a plague of undeserved torments, is that the ultimate order of the universe is sometimes lacking in justice, thus destroying belief in a simple tit for tat karmic system of good deeds and (earthly) rewards. Mr. I. ’s world is likewise razed by his accident, but what he loses is not so much a sense of a divinely sanctioned moral logos as a certain aesthetic take on the world.

Most alarmingly, and like the case of Job, he starts to see almost everything as hideous and, in somewhat ethico-religious language, “dirty” (7, 15, 34). As a career artist, losing the aesthetic value of the world is devastating to Mr. I. , like losing faith in God for a religious person. However, with the help of Sacks and other doctors, and his own experience, Mr. I. comes to see his new form of vision as a merely different and not necessarily depleted mode of sense.

He returns to making art, taking his kind of vision as the structural coordinates for him to create within, just as color forms the medium of aesthetic thinking for people who do perceive it. Thus this story affirms the best hope for humanity that Gilligan offers, that our connections to each other can overcome the damages we inflict to be positive sources of growth and satisfaction. The story of the last hippie is less optimistic, at least from the perspective of Sacks.

The patient, Greg, has sufficient brain damage that he has no sense of his own loss; in a sense, his trauma is that he has been removed from the whole world of violence, not only in the good sense of escaping damage but also in the meta-tragic sense that he cannot experience meaning as it is formed through the tragic story cycle. He exists virtually without relation, without the application of object permanence to his own experiences—he can experience and enjoy the presence of others, but when they are not present they cease to signify for him, and so there can be narrative progression.

Perhaps in his case this is a blessing, for Greg’s brain damage is tragic in its origin. When the first symptoms of his tumor emerged, they were interpreted to be signs of increased sanctity by the religious community with which he was living. Sacks does not demonize the faithful for their integral role in permanently crippling the mind of this young man, but he makes clear that their faulty interpretations and clannishness are the reasons he is and will remain institutionalized (45).

There is a pathetic element in the beginnings of Greg’s problem that we don’t see in the case of Mr. I.. A car crash, like the tango, requires two people; a brain tumor is clearly within the category of acts (or accidents) of Nature. Yet the different contexts, the other persons involved in how these two irruptions of violence came to shape their meanings for the persons involve, differentiate Greg’s pathetic brain tumor into tragic brain damage.

It is not necessary to say that the lesson here, or anywhere in Sacks’s paradoxical book, is that science and medicine always no best, and that they offer definitive answers—quite on the contrary, these tales describe the limit of scientific inquiry and the many false paths it has traveled in understanding the brain. Sacks’s point here on the tragic turn in Greg’s case is quite in keeping with the dual outlook of the work as a whole.

Religious ascendancy is one interpretation of loss of vision and benignant calm, but another—maybe several other—explanations should be allowed their crack at the problem as well. If an eye exam can’t determine why someone loses part of their vision, maybe a brain scan will, or other types of vision tests. The different outcomes of these patiest illustrate well the ability of a range of social connections to determine whether tragic events end in senseless loss or redemption.

Works Cited

Gilligan, James. Violence. New York: Grosset/Putnam, 1992. Sacks, Oliver. An Anthroplogist on Mars. New York Knopf, 1995.

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